Teaching Tuesday: a new regular feature on The Big Thing


[This is a “Teaching Tuesday” post. Every Tuesday, I’ll share something here about teaching: a link to one of my course blogs, a bit of advice, an exercise that works particularly well. This is also a cross post between “The Big Thing” and the “ABOUT” page of my novel-writing course blog, “#amnoveling.”

About #amnoveling

Yes, I turned “novel” into both a GERUND (my husband says it’s a participle, whatevs) and a HASHTAG. When I made up this word three years ago, I was trying to ride on the coattails of popular hashtags like #amwriting (I am writing) and #amreading (I am reading), but since then, I’ve decided that calling this class, this blog, this endeavor #amnoveling is important for two reasons.

  1. The class I teach isn’t on “the novel” (a static noun) so much as it’s about the process, the activity of writing one (a VERB).
  2. Most creative writing classes don’t focus much on writing process, on motivation and performance. But I’m interested in using social media (this blog, the hashtag, a private Facebook group) so that my apprentice novelists can develop a regimen, share their progress, connect with others.

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“Workshop” to “Writing Group”


I love what Peter Turchi has to say about workshop here. This and Madison Smartt Bell’s introduction to Narrative Design have really informed my thinking about how I teach workshops.

When I’m teaching a workshop in which students are sharing “big things,” I ask them to read Turchi’s essay, especially this part:

The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)

How do we recognize the intention of a work in progress? When students are workshopping stand-alone short stories, my mantra is: The story must speak for itself. But when students are workshopping big things, I think it’s okay (and necessary) for the author to speak on behalf of the manuscript. Not during the workshop itself, which causes much awkwardness, but before class, outside class.

Idea: require students to use the Blackboard learning environment to create a process blog about their big thing. Ask each writer to articulate the larger goals of the project, its structure, the character’s overall arc, the possible chapters to come, where things are going.

Another idea: require students to turn in their pages presented like a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their book will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.” Basically, they need to teach us how to read their book. We need to know: are we reading stand alone stories, related stories, or a novel?

This approach often shifts the default setting of the class from “workshop” to “writing group.